The Long Bright Dark

HBO has a thing for Louisiana.  True Blood, Treme, and now True Detective.  Maybe it’s the tax breaks, or the distinctive mise-en-scène of a Spanish moss shrouded bayou.  Or maybe since Katrina, when the southern gothic literary tradition became glaringly real on CNN, the State has dominated a cultural sub consciousness, the glory of crumbling Americana.

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True Detective’s format leads itself to acclaim: top actors at the apex of their creative powers, a young novelist and director, a full eight hours to tell a story.  All those pieces work very well together, and the show will rack up awards and sell lots of artfully packaged box sets.

But I think what caught so many viewers off guard was how dark the entire thing was.  These were some of the scariest, most disturbing episodes of television I’ve ever watched.  The initial murder was draped in horrific imagery and menace with hardly any gore.  And after that we listened to Rust and Marty talk in two different timelines.

A cardinal rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”.  And yet, that’s where we find ourselves, listening to Marty and Rust tell the story to two detectives.  It’s testament to McConaughey and Harrelson we remain captivated.  Of course, there’s some dramatic irony when their recounted tale doesn’t match up with the events played out on the screen.

Our narrators are unreliable, and the camera possesses a certain perspective as well.  The landscape shots are slow zooms, clipping the tree tops, the vantage of a malevolent god.  And there’s some criticism about the male gaze, gratuitous nudity, objectification of the paper-thin female characters.

I’ve come to see the “sexification” as intentional.  Even the opening credits are a mix of caustic Louisiana landscapes and writhing female flesh – literally exposed on the faces of Rust and Marty.

Note how the women in Marty’s life are beautiful, Playboy centerfold quality.  Rust is in with the sad and dirty truckstop girls, and he turns them down, preferring a bottle of pills under the table.  Even Maggie, the one woman who crosses the line between the two, has a rutting, guilty encounter with Rust – far from the acrobatic and sensual affairs Marty imagines.

Since the 80s popularization of the horror genre, there’s been a formula: take something wholesome (summer camp, a pristine neighborhood, etc) add an evil element, and watch things fall to pieces.  Innocents are killed, perhaps the villain is stopped.  But in the end, we’re still left with that default control state that the world (sans our villain) is good.

Cosmic, existential horror works in the reverse.  The default state of the universe is misery, terror and despair.  For a time, something heroic may rise for a time, but it will always be crushed and decay.

Horror lost its meaning, going from a true supernatural fear, to something to joke about, rubber masks, and teenage pranks.  Those tropes were our protection. By putting something frightening – death, demons, the occult – into a set of familiar characters, we could shrug off the fear with a laugh.

The old Lovecraftian horror envisioned malevolent Old Ones, beings outside of time and space, who watched us with hungry and angry eyes.  The new nihilism, explained by Rust, has a lot of the same despair and horror, but Cthulu has been replaced by the cold laws of physics.  Human consciousness is a mistake of evolution.  Love and human relationships are just a veneer, a trick to get us to reproduce.  Even concepts of good and evil are emergent behavior, irrelevant to the pull of gravity or the strong atomic force.

Rust goes further, talking about a perspective from outside of time, where all our actions are pre-ordained, and can be viewed as a “flat circle”, ever repeating, confined within realm of possibility.  We’re ultimately trapped within that circular prison.

One interesting reading is that we – the audience – are those old gods.  We watch the True Detective story on its flat circle (DVDs), skipping chapters, fast forwarding and rewinding, Rust and Marty seeking clues and shooting creepy murderers without end.

And so it comes back to us, the viewers.  How we respond to the things we’re seeing.

There was some backlash at the conclusion.  Disappointment that the conspiracy wasn’t cracked open, that fingers weren’t pointed at the high and mighty, that all the clues weren’t consumed.

I’d call this the Lost syndrome: we want to build crazy conspiracies, and then have the show validate them.  When the show takes a different path, focusing on character or theme instead of the intricacies of plot, we get angry.

Even as Rust explains “Nothing in this world is solved,” some still viewed the show from that lens of 80s horror, that all the evil in the universe of the story can be pinpointed exactly on the conspiracy.

The idea that things are messy (cases aren’t solved, there are gray zones of evil, our actors aren’t either heroes or villains) is what is disturbing to the audience.  They want to wrap up their genre feast of serial killers in a neat package, all the trope checkboxes marked off.  Fact is – the Yellow King cult was just a McGuffin to illustrate true existential horror, not only in the southern gothic tradition (rural decay, poor backwoods life, inbreeding, sexual abuse and debasement) but all of life.  That was Rust’s feeling, that regardless of where he went (undercover in the Mexican cartels, up north to Alaska to work as a fisher and trapper), the horror of life followed him.  It was inescapable, part of his reality.

Only when he was reduced to a coma, and he had a glimpse of some deeper force, could he see beyond the horror.  The world is still filled with darkness, but maybe there is some light.

So too with the show. Some of these hinted images were the most disturbing things I’ve seen in some time.  Difficult to sleep through.  But it’s the glimmer of hope at the end, and the change in the heart of Marty and Rust, that elevates True Detective beyond quality genre fodder.

I’m looking forward to Season 2.

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